For Black History Month, WISE is highlighting six influential immigrant and/or refugee women of African descent. We honor these remarkable women who have made history or are making history by breaking barriers and challenging oppressive systems through their own unique platforms.
Paule Marshall is a child of Barbadian immigrants. She is an African American novelist and professor of English and creative writing. Through her writing, Marshall challenged her readers understand and recognize systemic oppression, particularly those of identity and race. Her novels also deal with the immigrant experience in the U.S. and navigating bi-cultural identities. Paule Marshall passed away in 2019 after struggling with dementia.
filmmaker, teacher, film curator
Guetty Felin was born in Port-au-Prince, Haiti and raised in New York. Her films explore themes of memory, healing, exile, and foreignness with her most critically acclaimed work bringing attention to Haiti’s cultural heritage. In 2007 she co-founded an independent film and multimedia company, BelleMoon Productions, where she is able to share her love for visual storytelling.
Maryam Mursal is a Somali vocalist and musician. As a teenager, Mursal appreciated the traditional music of Somalia and tried to immerse herself in musical knowledge every chance she could get. While she established a singing career in Somalia touring with a troupe, it was halted when the civil war broke out and Mursal was banned from performing. When she finally found asylum in Denmark after leaving Somalia, she began to re-establish her singing career. Her music is a mixture of traditional African and contemporary styles with her lyrics being inspired from her remarkable journey to Denmark. Maryam Mursal currently resides in Denmark and continues to make music.
supermodel, humanitarian activist
Alek Wek is a Sudanese-British supermodel. She and her family fled South Sudan for the UK when she was a child. She was first scouted to be a model as a teenager, leading to her remarkable career in modeling. Wek broke barriers as the first African model to grace the cover of Elle magazine and the first African women to walk Chanel’s haute couture as the “bride”. Wek is also a humanitarian activist in South Sudan and serves as the Good Will Ambassador to the UNHCR.
nurse, author, human rights activist
Yolande Mukagasana was a Tutsi nurse who managed to flee during the Rwandan Genocide to Belgium, where she was granted refugee status in 1999*. Despite the trauma of losing her family, Mukagasana released written narratives of her history escaping the Genocide and factors leading up to it. She also returned to Rwanda to interview the perpetrators and victims for a traveling exhibition, “The Wounds of the Silence,” which was organized by Mukagasana and Doctors Without Borders. Mukagasana advocates for trauma-healing and rehabilitation through theatre platforms, such as narration and reenactment. She believes in using Rwanda’s strong oral tradition to break the silence.
Rep. Ilhan Omar
politician, organizer, public speaker
Rep. Ilhan Omar is a Somali-American and a State Representative of Minnesota. Due to the civil war in Somalia, she and her family fled the country and lived in a Kenyan refugee camp before arriving in the U.S. Rep. Omar was sworn in on January 2019 and makes history as the first Somali-American Member of Congress, the first woman of color to represent Minnesota, and one of the first two Muslim-American women elected to Congress. Rep. Omar remains active in Congress fighting for student debt relief, climate change action, and fair wages.
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